Posted on January 12, 2005

Activist Wins National Human Rights Prize

El Universal (Mexico City), Jan. 11

Mexico, which often complains about the treatment by U.S. authorities of its undocumented citizens who cross the border northbound, eloquently acknowledged Monday that its officials are often cruel, arbitrary and abusive with Central Americans entering from the south.

The admission came as Olga Sánchez Martínez, an activist on behalf of the Central Americans who cross Mexico en route to the United States, was honored by President Vicente Fox with the 2004 National Prize for Human Rights.

“We cannot demand respectful treatment of our compatriots from our neighbor to the north if we are not prepared to grant it to those who come from the south,” said José Luis Soberanes, head of the governmental National Commission on Human Rights, in making the presentation.

Sánchez was recognized for her efforts as the director of a shelter for immigrants in the southern state of Chiapas, which borders Guatemala. The prize she received Monday consists of a medal, a certificate and 250,000 pesos (about US22,000) in cash.

“Of the work of Olga Sánchez Martínez like that of many other defenders of vulnerable groups there is hardly any press coverage; her voice is not known on the radio nor does her face appear on television,” Soberanes said at the ceremony.

“Now, unfortunately, being an immigrant can equate to having to bear not only the burdens of social misfortune and inequality, but also the indifference of others and the enormous risk of being treated as a criminal,” he said.

Soberanes cited an incident that occurred four days ago in the southern border city of Tapachula, where a Honduran immigrant on the rooftop terrace of the shelter run by Sánchez was attacked by a police officer who shot at him from the street with an assault rifle.

While the Honduran escaped unharmed, the rights commission chief said that “the event gives one an idea of the kind of violence to which they (immigrants) have been exposed.”

The official lamented that Central Americans transiting Mexico are subject to “discrimination, race hatred, mutilating injuries from falling off moving trains, robbery by bands of assailants, fraud by those who sell them transport that’s never safe.”

Soberanes also decried “the shameful extortion by agents of authority and the danger the ever-present danger of dying in the middle of the road.”

Sánchez, in accepting the award, revealed that she suffers from a serious illness.

“For me death is no longer a threat, but rather a challenge we can overcome with faith, with hope, with love,” she said, adding that receiving the rights award motivated her “to continue with this colossal undertaking.”